Last Wednesday was the most memorable day of my medical school experience thus far. Second-year medical students at UVM had the privilege of welcoming more than 30 visitors from the community who had physical, intellectual, and neurodevelopmental disabilities for “Disability Awareness Day.” Our class of about 100 students was divided into small groups, each of which was assigned to a specific room and panel of guests. Over the course of the morning, we participated in discussions with self-advocates from all over Vermont. We also had the opportunity to engage in various simulation activities that ranged from mobility and communication difficulties to simulating a vision or hearing impairment.
It was wonderful to meet and speak with these members of our community, all of whom are successful, happy, and skilled individuals despite overcoming obstacles each day of their lives, obstacles that many of us do not have to consider. The ease of grabbing a book off the top shelf in the library, for example, is something that I have never thought twice about. For a wheelchair user, however, it is almost impossible. Instead, it would require either creativity, working with the mobility you do have, or asking for assistance, all of which can get extremely frustrating. How about the simple pleasure of enjoying a meal? This is no easy feat for those who have impaired swallowing or require feeding assistance, the latter of which provokes feelings of vulnerability, as I quickly realized. A friend of mine in the speech impairment simulation group was instructed to communicate complex phrases, such as “I dropped a hammer on my toe and it hurts”, using only hand gestures and sounds. He later told me that he felt embarrassed, self-conscious, and frustrated while having to do this in front of the class, something that the panelists may have felt (and probably do feel daily). This experience was humbling and moving.
I feel grateful to have spoken with and learned from such incredible members of our community, many of whom are well-known for the work that they do. Some students had the chance to meet Ben, a deputy state’s attorney who has cerebral palsy. Others were able to speak with Rene, a comedian-entertainer who has Usher syndrome. I was able to reconnect with an old friend who is a Special Olympics athlete. A local self-advocate shared his perspective as a person who has autism. These sessions were arranged so that students could ask the guests questions in a safe and intimate setting. Many students wanted to know what advice the visitors could offer to future physicians and there seemed to some common themes: Be patient. Try not to use complicated medical words. Listen to what your patients and their family members have to say. Answer all of their questions, and don’t be afraid to ask questions yourself. These concepts are actually quite simple but perhaps it is the simple things that are easiest to forget.
During the first two years of med school, most of our time is spent in lectures or study rooms, frantically memorizing metabolic pathways and drug names – or in my case, inventing ridiculous mnemonics – with the goal of building a solid foundation to understand human health and disease. The days are long, and it is easy to lose sight of why we chose to enter this profession to begin with. Once in a while, however, we are reminded of what brought us here: We are given the opportunity to meet patients, real people, who can put a face to a particular condition and answer our questions about the more human side of an illness. Roles are reversed and, instead of physicians informing patients on do’s and don’ts, the patients become our teachers. Their lessons are more valuable than any lecture or textbook could possibly be.
As the day’s activities wrapped up, you could sense a difference in everyone’s mood. My classmates seemed to have a little more energy that afternoon. We were maybe even a little less stressed and a little more inspired. It is exciting to think that my classmates and I, as future doctors, have the unique opportunity to advocate for our patients who cannot do so themselves as well as support self-advocates who can. To me, advocacy means speaking up when I hear someone using insensitive language. Advocacy means assuming competence in my interactions with all patients, regardless of their physical appearance, and encouraging my colleagues to do the same. Advocacy means serving as an ally to those with disabilities and their families and working to reduce the stigma and discrimination that they so often encounter. In promoting tolerance of people of all abilities, we can better care for others and become extraordinary students, teachers, and physicians in the long run.